The Avengers: Age of Ultron is coming next year and I’m kind of excited. Not sell-my-soul-for-an-early-screening excited, but I’m looking forward to it. One of the reasons I’m excited is that the first Avengers film did a truly exemplary job of drawing its large cast of characters and making them dynamic, relatable and fun. Even if you’d never seen a movie from the Marvel cinematic universe you could enjoy the film – I’d only seen Captain America: The First Avenger before I sat down to watch Marvel’s The Avengers and I still managed to follow everything quite well.
The Avengers was a masterpiece of tight writing and character conflict and, in preparation for Age of Ultron, I’m going to take the next several months to unpack the great writing in the first film one story arc at a time.
The best way to understand The Avengers is to view it not as one story but seven and to analyze those seven stories by their basic conflicts. The largest story is the story of Earth, represented by SHIELD and the Avengers, against Loki and the Chituari. The conflict is character(s) against character(s). But within that story there are six other stories taking place, each of which makes the larger story richer and helps us understand each of the individual characters in the story much better.
For today we’re going to start with the character who I think people who watched The Avengers understood the least: Bruce Banner and The Hulk.
Bruce Banner was an omnidisciplinarian scientist who was trying to replicate the supersoldier serum that gave Captain America his abilities. Instead he created a formula that made him invincible and unbelievably strong when enraged. It also takes a lot of his conscious thought process away and replaces it with instinct.
Bruce Banner’s conflict is character against himself. Bruce sees the Hulk as a horror that he must suppress and control or the people around him will be threatened.
We Meet Bruce Banner
“I’m going to talk to Stark. You’re going to talk to the big guy.” – Phil Coleson
We’re first given an idea of what the Hulk is when we see Agent Phil Coleson sending Agent Natasha Romanov out to retrieve him. Phil says she’s off to see “the big guy,” a statement she initially misunderstands. When she realizes what Coleson means we see the first sign of genuine intimidation from her in the film. Remember that, before this, she’s performed a reverse interrogation on a bunch of bloodthirsty Russians who she then beat up and showed no reverence at all when talking about one of the most intelligent and wealthy men on the planet (hint: Tony Stark). Clearly, the big guy is someone special.
We finally meet Bruce as he’s washing up after a medical procedure in India. He’s helping the poor there, probably the “untouchables” who are the lowest rung of Hindu society. He follows a girl who begs for his help with no question and as fast as he can. From this we see both deep compassion and intelligence in Banner’s willingness and ability to solve medical problems amidst extreme poverty… as well as a tendency to plunge into situations without thinking that Romanov exploits to cause their meeting.
Banner’s Starting Point
“The other guy spat it back out.” – Bruce Banner
On meeting Banner, Romanov congratulates Bruce on not having an “incident” in over a year. The she asks, “What’s your secret?”
“No secret,” Bruce replies. This moment is important for two reasons – first, the idea that Banner has a secret is going to be tied back to his character progression at each significant point and second, this is the first sign of Banner’s problem, his unwillingness to admit The Hulk is a part of him. To Banner, the Hulk is literally another person, as if he’s Dr. Jekyll and The Hulk is his Mr. Hyde.
Now this is be a legitimate angle on Banner/Hulk taken with The Hulk in the comics but for the purposes of this analysis the comics have no bearing on this movie and I don’t think that’s the angle the script writers actually envision when thinking about Banner/Hulk so we have to understand Banner’s development as a conflict between one personality facet – The Hulk – and the rest of Bruce Banner.
Banner has concluded The Hulk is to be avoided and, if he does show up, fought back down until Banner is again in control. Banner is at war with himself, although he won’t admit to it.
Romanov and Bruce continue their verbal sparring, Natasha trying to manipulate him and Banner seeing through the game. Finally Bruce decides to give in but reminds Natasha that he’s dangerous and she’d better be ready for that and, at the same time, lets the audience know that ultimately lies and trickery are meaningless against The Hulk’s rage.
Remember that, because it will be important later.
“Oh no, this is much worse.” – Bruce Banner
Since no one character can get anything like center stage in The Avengers, Banner fades into the background a bit while other things happen. But in this period of time we continue to see his genius for science applied and a total avoidance of things that might bring out The Hulk.
And again, Bruce does his best to ignore the elephant in the room. Aside from the occasional comment about air-tight, pressurized containers he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he’s unusual in any way other than maybe a bit smarter than normal. By the end of this quiet period Loki has been captured and brought aboard the Helicarrier, Banner has met Tony Stark and the two are tasked with finding the Tesseract.
Banner Begins to Change
“I’m a huge fan of the way you loose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.” – Tony Stark
Most characters in The Avengers evolve in three steps – where they are when they start out, their pivot point and where they end up. Banner’s pivot point comes as Tony jabs him in the side and then congratulates him on maintaining control. Once again the question gets asked. “What’s your secret?”
Again, Banner answers, “No secret.”
Banner is still in denial but Stark has a perspective on Bruce’s situation that Natasha does not. Romanov is an expert manipulator but has no insight into the difficulties that come with suddenly have power thrust upon you – she’s fought her whole life to get what power she has – while Tony went through a similar experience to Bruce’s when he became Iron Man. Even Stark, with his enormous ego, struggled with what to do with himself after his time as a prisoner in Afghanistan. In some ways Stark had a harder time of it but ultimately Banner had to face a part of himself he found truly horrific which makes their experiences a bit different.
Fortunately Stark has enough people sense to see what’s holding Banner back and he suggests that the bizarre set of circumstances that has changed his life happened for a purpose and that, in point of fact, becoming The Hulk might actually have been a good thing. Banner can’t see what that purpose is but the thought has been planted in his mind and it changes the direction of his character from there on out.
“Target is angry!” – Anonymous Pilot
Most of the Hulk’s second bridge between characterization points is an action set piece but it’s bookended by some important events. First is the moment he hulks out for the first time. The Helicarrier is under attack, Romanov and Banner wind up getting hurt in the carnage and Romanov is trying to keep Banner calm by promising that he’ll be fine and he’ll get out of this. Then she says something she shouldn’t have. “I swear on my life.”
If you watch closely you might notice Banner was starting to shrink back down to a more normal size just before she says this. Now he surges back and forth a bit before finally Hulking up after Romanov says this so it may have just been him still in the midst of his transformation. It might be nothing. But the fact that he latches onto the phrase and repeats it suggests something interesting.
I don’t think Banner ultimately hulks out because he’s hurting, although his frank recounting of his suicide attempt at the beginning of his character arc tells us that could happen. Bruce becomes enraged because someone who’s already hurt and in a bad situation is offering to endure even worse problems in order to help others and Banner feels powerless to do anything about it. So he transforms into the Hulk, who does.
Not that the Hulk actually helps things, but that’s because Bruce is fighting the Hulk every step of the way. He still sees “the other guy” as a problem to be avoided rather than another talent, like his genius, which is helpful at some times and useless at other times.
Fast forward several minutes. Bruce is picking himself up off the ground in the rubble of a warehouse and a janitor is telling him he came down where he did, in a place no one was around, not by coincidence or luck but by design. The Hulk was consciously trying to land someplace no one would get hurt.
And for the first time the idea that The Hulk wants to help people just as much as the rest of Bruce Banner does enters the mind of our hero.
Banner’s Conflict Resolved
“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” – Bruce Banner/The Hulk
When Bruce rides into Manhattan on the sweetest hero ride ever, the Chituari have already made a mess of it. New York needs help and the brilliant mind of Bruce Banner is not the best tool for the job. Captain America suggests it might be time for him to try something else. “It might be a good time to get angry.”
Banner isn’t in denial any more. The Hulk isn’t another person in his mind anymore. He has made peace with himself. Bruce wants to help the people of Manhattan and so does the Hulk. It’s he did it.
Bruce Banner is a man of compassion. Seeing people suffering at the hands of aliens they’ve never heard of and did nothing to provoke makes him angry. And so does seeing people sick and dying in poverty in India. And so does being lied to about the things SHIELD was doing with the Tesseract. In fact, he’s a smart enough man to realize that every second of every day something horrible is happening to someone, somewhere and he’s empathetic enough that the fact enrages him, even if it’s just the smallest bit. He’s never acted on that rage because he didn’t think it could make a difference.
That was before the Hulk.
And on the streets of New York it was time to finally admit his secret. It wasn’t that he didn’t get angry. The secret, of course, is that he always is. But now he accepts that he can use it for good, and he proceeds to do so.
Unless you’re the Chituari, of course.
Confrontation with Loki
“Puny god.” – Bruce Banner/The Hulk
Every Avenger in the story confronts Loki at some point during the story but the Hulk is special because he is the only one to confront the Norse god of Trickery after his character’s arc is complete. All the others confront Loki during their arc or at it’s the completion. So it’s fitting that The Hulk is the Avenger who ends Loki’s ability to directly influence the larger conflict – The Hulk is the only one who confronts Loki when he is fully invested in the greater conflict and not distracted by his own personal conflict. Thus The Hulk has the entire breadth of his terrifying strength to bring to bear on Loki and Loki alone.
Also, as I mentioned at the beginning of Banner’s arc, Bruce/Hulk is not stopped or even slowed by deception. He cannot have his conviction shaken, his confidence moved or his attention distracted. The Hulk is far too simple to be confused by fine speeches or deterred by illusions. In The Hulk Loki met his one natural enemy and was defeated in one of the shortest and most brutal curb stomp battles a supervillain has ever faced.
On the whole I feel that Bruce has a great, dynamic character arc that hints at his character progression without having to spell it out. Unfortunately with six other stories going on around him that subtle, understated characterization doesn’t play as well as it might if his was the only character arc going on. This caused a lot of people to miss it in spite of each major point along the arc being highlighted by the word “secret.” Banner is very secretive about his being the Hulk, in fact he’s the only one of the four “super” heroes in the movie that has a secret identity. Tony Stark is a prominent industrialist who announced his identity at a press conference, Captain Steve Rogers was a prominent war hero and now has an exhibit in the Smithsonian and Thor is a literal legend in his own time.
Banner starts out ashamed of who he is and fears what might become of others if his power is allowed to go unchecked. Note that Banner doesn’t want the formula that made him duplicated or improved upon which is a major reason he’s in hiding. He also doesn’t believe The Hulk can think about the good of others or cooperate with other people, at least at first. This is a possibility that, for all his intelligence, other people have to explain to him. He’s a flawed character and doesn’t understand himself that well sometimes, but these are things that make him more realistic and actually help what could have been an over the top, one note character fit into a realistically portrayed character progression.
So, for having a well thought out character arc that’s told deftly and with every step in his growth well demonstrated (and mostly by action or reaction and not words), I consider Bruce Banner/The Hulk to be the best written character in The Avengers. But I don’t think he’s the one who went through the biggest change. So next month I hope you’ll join me as we take a look at Banner’s fellow genius Tony Stark to get an eye full of one of the biggest character shifts I’ve ever seen from a superhero in a single movie.